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SOA Migration: An Airline Keeping Its Feet on the Ground

SOA Migration: An Airline Keeping Its Feet on the Ground

How one airline managed people and technology to move its reservation system with Lufthansa to an upgraded architecture

In a mission-critical project like modernising an airline’s product suite for reservations, inventory and passenger check-in, technology is almost beside the point. Management is key.

“We’re having a heart transplant,” says Shama Patel, managing director of corporate strategy and planning for United Airlines. Patel was referring to the Horizon Project, a service-oriented architecture (SOA)-fuelled modernisation effort by United Airlines and Lufthansa.

Horizon is certainly a major undertaking. The existing system is 40 years old, built in assembly language and still green-screen-based (even with a prettier graphical interface glued on top). “The back end is no longer scalable for today’s needs and it doesn’t integrate well with...well, with anything,” explains Patel. In addition, each airline and other travel providers (think Travelocity) had disparate systems that didn’t talk with one another, and they needed to do so. With customer demands for modern technology (such as, “Why can’t I check in using my BlackBerry?”), it was time for a change.

Lufthansa and United are partnered to develop Horizon as a common platform that will be used by both airlines and, eventually, also used by other members of the Star Alliance, which consists of 21 other member carriers. When it rolls out, it will impact 20,000 people in 350 locations in a three- to four-year time frame, and it will touch 20 company divisions at United alone.

Horizon initially focused on three major back-end functions: sales, planning and departure management. However, “as we worked on the back-end system, we realised we also had to replace the front end,” Patel says. The new back end wouldn’t be able to interact with the old front end, and they needed an abstraction layer in the middle as part of the new system architecture. So Horizon grew to include an integrated agent portal, the corporate intranet, real-time systems for flight status and baggage systems, and much more.

To make such a project succeed means tackling people and business issues long before you think about technology. “Managing change is essential to help people through the emotional curve,” Patel says.

Horizon uses several change-management techniques to ensure project success. For instance, United Business sponsors and IT leaders are aligned through a strong executive governance board. The company also established a guidance coalition. This is not a matrix organisation with business on one side and IT on the other, explains Patel. Participants make decisions for the division. Nor are they just a bunch of strangers who only see each other at meetings, she added; true alignment is a necessity. “The truth is that there is always a divide and a schism [between IT and the business]; on a project like this, that just won’t work,” she says.

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